Quality Without Compromise

See’s Candies, Warren Buffett and the perfect investment.

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See's Candies

William Ramsey, an executive at Blue Chip Stamps, stood in the office of Robert Flaherty as they both awaited a call. Moments earlier, Flaherty attempted to persuade Warren Buffett, majority owner of Blue Chip, to con­sider purchasing See’s Candy Shops Inc., a popular West Coast candy maker. Buffett turned them down—up until then, he was used to buying boring businesses on the cheap: banks, textile mills and insurance companies. Ramsey however, thought See’s was a great buy, and desperately tried to get Buffett back on the phone. Their sec­retary finally got hold of Buffett at his home in Omaha. He had reviewed the numbers, and liked what he saw.

After consulting with Charlie Munger, Buffett’s friend and business partner, they were willing to make an offer. This would be Buffett’s biggest investment to date, and he wasn’t one to overpay for anything—the deal al­most fell through during negotiations, but the sellers finally accepted their proposal. The final price was $35 per share. With one million shares out­standing and $10 million in cash on the books, the net purchase price was $25 million. Blue Chip Stamps now owned 67.3 percent of See’s Candy Shops, with the remainder purchased from about 2,200 public holders in the months after. But one thing remained unfinished: who would run the com­pany? Buffett made it clear upfront that they wouldn’t be calling the shots at See’s. Suggested by the previous owner, Buffett, Munger and a friend named Rick Guerin met with Charlie Huggins—executive vice president and twenty-year veteran of See’s. After three hours of discussion, Buffett knew that Huggins was the man for the job.
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Warren Buffett & The Washington Post

By Max Olson

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Warren Buffett and Katherine Graham

There is no question that Warren Buffett is one of the greatest investors of all time. To study his investment methods, there are the Berkshire Hathaway annual letters, biographies, and dozens of other books written on the subject of value investing. But, Buffett’s specific investments are rarely examined within the context of the time he made the purchase—and without the benefit of hindsight. To more fully understand Buffett’s past successes, “reverse engineering” his purchases is essential. One investment in particular interested me, both because I like the business and because it is one of the only investments Buffett made where he disclosed an estimate of intrinsic value. That business is The Washington Post Company.

Background

Buffett began acquiring shares of the Washington Post in early 1973, and by the end of the year held over 10 percent of the non-controlling “B” shares. After multiple meetings with Katherine Graham (the company’s Chairman and CEO), he joined the Post’s board in the fall of 1974.

According to Buffett’s 1984 speech The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville, in 1973, Mr. Market was offering to sell the Post for $80 million. Buffett also mentioned that you could have “…sold the (Post’s) assets to any one of ten buyers for not less than $400 million, probably appreciably more.” How did Buffett come to this value? What assumptions did he make when looking at the future of the company? Note: All numbers and details in this article are from the 1971 and 1972 annual reports and “Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist” by Roger Lowenstein.

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